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Born To Be Wild - Exmoor Ponies

Following in the hoof prints of this ancient, enigmatic wild spirit of Exmoor

(Hi-res Digital Image Files and Prints are available to order - please contact for details.)

Exmoor ponies against skyline

© Shaun Barr Photography

A wild wind sweeps rain horizontally across the moorland Exmoor that stretches out across west Somerset and into north Devon. On a clearer day you would be able to see beyond the hills that suddenly drop steeply into the Bristol Channel and across to the shimmering coastline towns of South Wales. 

Exmoor pony mare and foal photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

But now low cloud is shrouding the tops and visibility is pared back to metres rather than miles. You only need a few hours of tramping through the wet, boggy ground that gently rises and falls over hillsides for miles in all directions to realise this is a tough environment to spend time in – let alone live out in all year round. 

These images were captured over a 2-week period, which allowed me to not only spend a great deal of time with the herds, but also to photograph them in various weather conditions - often within the same day!

Exmoor pony herd photograph

© Shaun Barr Photography

Covering an area of 267 square miles Exmoor has a dramatic, spectacular beauty with often challenging terrain. Vast tracks of heather and gorse clad moorland sweep down into steep combes, hugging the coastline where it often meets rugged clifftops.

But like the fell ponies I spend so much time with in Cumbria, Exmoor ponies are equally well adapted to the tough conditions of this landscape. Their double-layered winter coats consist of a dense under layer of fine soft hair, thick enough to insulate them from the worst of the cold, while their coarse, oily top coat repels the rain. 

Exmoor Pony Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

The weather patterns here mean that protection from the damp is crucial. As low pressure systems often roll in off the Atlantic, the south-west endures a generous amount of rain. As climate change continues this area is increasingly prone to extreme rainfall. The Exmoor pony’s coat sees them through the worst of this rain and their thick manes and tails (often decorated with pieces of dried bracken!) help to keep them warm and dry. 

Exmoor Pony Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony - Description

A sturdy, solid pony, strong and resilient – attributes that have ensured its survival for so long. Colours are dun (smoky brown), bay (red brown), and brown (dark Brown), all colours of which will still feature that distinctive mealy muzzle and around the eyes.

 

Stallions and geldings are 11.3hh to 12.3hh at maturity. Mares are 11.2hh to 12.2hh at maturity.

Exmoor Pony Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

©Shaun Barr Photography

How Old Is The Exmoor Pony?

There’s a short to answer to this: very old, quite possibly the oldest of the UK’s native pony breeds. They have definitely been roaming the moors since ancient times. 

 

Beyond their undeniable beauty, there was another reason for wanting to see this particular native horse in its natural environment: their astounding heritage. Barely altered from the original native wild pony, it is suggested that the Exmoor provided the raw material for the development of many if not all other British native pony breeds.

Exmoor Pony Herd on moorland photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

There are records of the Exmoor pony as early as the Domesday Book in 1086, when the area was designated a Royal Forest. But their origins go much, much further back than that with some suggesting links to the prehistoric horse that lived many millennia ago. There are distinct similarities between the Exmoor pony of today and the small horses depicted in early cave paintings.

Exmoor Pony Photography Close up Portrait

© Shaun Barr Photography

The heritage of these stunning creatures is staggering to contemplate. It's incredible to think while looking at these animals in their native environment, just how deeply  rooted in ancient history their connections with this land actually are. It’s believed that Exmoor’s relatively isolated location helped the Exmoor pony stay so true, keeping its genetic integrity.

Exmoor Pony Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the Exmoor pony finally ran into serious trouble. In fact it became close to extinction just after the Second World War, with no more than around 50 ponies left, including just a handful of stallions. 

It is thanks to the dedication and hard work of a few conservation groups and individuals who raised awareness of the breed and its plight, that numbers gradually increased in the decades that followed. 

Exmoor Pony herd running across moorland Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

The Exmoor Pony Society played a key role in bringing the numbers back up, while at the same time ensuring strict quality control and inspection protocols were put in place to preserve the integrity of the breed. Nevertheless, the Exmoor resides on the Endangered List of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. There are now 20 free-living herds across Exmoor, comprising around 300 ponies.

Exmoor Pony Foals nuzzling Photograph

© Shaun Barr Photography

Beyond the autumn gathering – where ponies are rounded up, inspected, foals weaned and some sold – the ponies spend the entire year living life in the wild and all that it entails. The genetics of adaption to this environment, honed over thousands of years, continue to live on in herds which remain as close to the wild as it’s possible for them to be. 

Exmoor Pony Head Portrait Close up Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

Like many other native hill breeds such as fell ponies, Exmoor ponies are now increasingly used for conservation with great success. The ponies graze in a way that increases biodiversity. They are capable of eating tough grasses, thistles and gorse, which are usually left by grazing cattle and sheep.

 

Regular removal of such vegetation by the ponies allows other plants and wild flowers to establish, opening up a more diverse range of species. It is this increased variety of plant species – which I turn support insects, birds and mammals - that is key to increased biodiversity.

Exmoor Pony and Foal grazing

© Shaun Barr Photography

That such a beautiful animal can be used in such a positive, constructive way, will hopefully ensure that the Exmoor pony remains a part of this breath-taking landscape for thousands of years to come. 

Exmoor Pony Head Portrait

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony herd running across moorland

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony foal and mare nuzzling.

© Shaun Barr Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony standing by trig point.

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Ponies, Horse Photography Prints
Exmoor Ponies, Horse Photography Prints
Exmoor pony in heather photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony Photography

© Shaun Barr Photography

Exmoor Pony Greetings Cards, as well as Fell Pony and Eriskay Pony Greetings Cards can be purchased on Etsy at Shaun Barr Photography or directly from me. Please contact.

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